There is a perception that Old School D&D with the original players was incredibly lethal. If you run the game straight as the rules are written, it is hard for it to be anything but lethal. There is plenty of conversation in the OSR scene discussing the “intentions” of the original game designers and how the game was “designed” to be played. I teach about Government & Politics, and I find these arguments extremely similar to arguments about the US Constitution and the “intentions” of the Founding Fathers. People tend to want to read what the Founding Fathers wrote, and interpret those writings for themselves, then claim this is what the original “design” and how the game is meant to be played. The only issue that I have is the evidence I have heard or run across seems to completely disregard this idea.
I want to be perfectly clear. I do not have ALL the evidence in the world, and some of the stories I have heard MIGHT not be true. This is not me claiming to know the CORRECT way things should be done. This is me asking a few questions that seem to not link up in my mind. I am actually hoping to get some answers. So please, do not post comments about how I am claiming to know everything, because I do not, nor is that my assertion. The three main concepts I will discuss that do not seem to match up to me are lethality, level drain, and leveling overall.
Melf, Bigby, Tasha, Murlynd, Mordenkainen, Robilar These are all characters that we have known about for years. Many of these characters were some of the first ever produced for Dungeons & Dragons. How did they survive? I mean with the lethality level that is presented in the books, and the fact that these people were the first to ever play the game, why didn’t they die at some point? I mean a single failed save vs poison would have killed them. Since these players did not have any reference to exploring dungeons, they had to make a few mistakes, right? Some of the characters like, Robilar, played solo with Gary….solo in a Dungeons & Dragons dungeon. How did they survive? Many of these well-known characters are Magic-Users a notorious character class known to die early. The idea that all of these characters, and many more, made it to extremely high levels leads to one of two conclusions. One, when the original D&D groups played, they did not go rules as written and the lethality was toned way down. Two, resurrection was readily available and not as punishing.
When I ran BX/BECMI with a rules as written approach, I believe I was often very merciful but still averaged about 1.5 deaths per session. These numbers and the stories I hear about older D&D just do not seem to match. I have slowly added some house rules into my games and the lethality has come down quite a bit, but it still happens with some regularity. It is possible that they played so many characters that died, that these just stuck out, but we know that many of these characters are the FIRST characters made for the game and odds are should have died. I cannot wrap my head around what seems to be a non-logical conclusion.
I have read that the original reason that level drain mechanic was added to the game was that the parties were leveling so fast, and they had an overabundance of wishes. How fast were they leveling and how many wishes did they have exactly? The monsters created would drain levels to keep the PCs from advancing too fast, and the DM could drain the party’s resources, wishes, as they used the wishes to restore levels. What kind of treasure was being given out to the players? Oftentimes even getting a +1 sword in my game is a big deal, let alone multiple Rings of Wishes or Genie Lamps. I did write an article about giving players wishes, but so many that as a DM I need to create a way of burning them for the players? How much gold was being given out that leveling too quickly was becoming an issue? I fully admit this tale could be apocrypha and maybe I am completely off-base, but this rumor about why it was started has been cited to me numerous times. Speaking of leveling…..
I watched a YouTube video with Tim Kask where he quickly talked about high level play. He mentions that D&D wasn’t really designed to go above about level 10. He mentioned that when your character got to about that level they carved out a piece of land and retired, then you rolled up a new character and went on with a new guy. That sounds amazing and I totally agree, but how many of your characters were getting to about 10th level? The way he made it sound this was like a regular occurrence. I have been running a group of characters since August of this past years. We play weekly, and my highest level character is about to hit 3rd level. What kind of XP were they giving out? I have been playing D&D since 1989 and the amount of characters I have that hit 10th level I can count on one hand and most of those were in later, non-THAC0 editions.
You listen to reports of people playing nowadays discussing how most characters never make it out of levels 1-2. There seems to be a disconnect with the way things are written about in the books and the way they were actually played. That, or people nowadays are just worse at playing the game, which I do not believe to be the case.
Odds are there are some simple solutions to the questions that I pose and I am more that open to hearing the explanations. I am just curious why these ideas that I have in my head, do not seem to match the stories that I hear. If you can shine some light on the situation, please comment on the post.
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